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Why It Matters Whether Students Learn About World War I in American History or World History Class

On April 6, 1917, the United States declared war on the German Empire. For Americans, that was the beginning of World War I, even though the war had been going on for years in Europe. That set up a dichotomy in how Americans treat the history of that war, reflected in how it's taught in history classes. Michigan State University professor Kyle Greenwalt looks at the differences.

In an academic sense, history is not simply the past, but the tools we use to study it – it is the process of historical inquiry. Over the course of the discipline’s development, the study of history became deeply entangled with the study of nations. It became “partitioned”: American history, French history, Chinese history.

This way of dividing the past reinforces ideas of who a people are and what they stand for. In the U.S., our national historical narrative has often been taught to schoolchildren as one where more and more Americans gain more and more rights and opportunities. The goal of teaching American history has long been the creation of citizens who are loyal to this narrative and are willing to take action to support it.

Meanwhile, the map of Europe has changed many times in the last hundred years. The story of World War I as a world history subject has a different focus.

World history curricula do not deny the importance of nations, but neither do they assume that nation-states are the primary actors on the historical stage. Rather, it is the processes themselves – trade, war, cultural diffusion – that often take center stage in the story. The line between “domestic” and “foreign” – “us” and “them” – is blurred in such examples.

There's a lot more to the subject. Read an overview at Smithsonian.


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I had to admit to my kids that I don't know much about World War I, because my world history classes never got that far along, and my American history classes were just Columbus, Revolutionary War, Civil War, and World War II.
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